And the Oscar nominees are...

As the Oscar ceremony draws near, the nominees prepare to take center stage

"Slumdog Millionaire" is increasingly emerging as the favorite to win best picture, and Heath Ledger leads by a length in the supporting actor race, as we enter the final stage in this year's Oscars. But that doesn't mean the other major categories are clear-cut. As the SAG Awards showed, surprises can still happen: It's a toss-up between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke for best actor; supporting actress is anyone's guess; and Kate Winslet's nomination as best actress for "The Reader" shakes up everything after she was expected to contend in support. What follows is a breakdown of where the top races stand three weeks from D-Day.

Picture

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount/Warner Bros.)
"Frost/Nixon" (Universal)
"Milk" (Focus Features)
"The Reader" (The Weinstein Co.)
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight)

Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight" didn't make it -- but Harvey Weinstein did. Even though he was unwilling or unable to pay for the sort of campaign that helped him dominate the Oscars in his heyday, he still managed to pull off a best picture nomination for "The Reader," bumping the Batman movie from the big five. Prior to the Jan. 22 nominations, conventional wisdom had settled on four films as near-certain nominees: "Button," "Slumdog," "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk." But nobody could agree on the fifth. "The Dark Knight" seemed to be out of the running when it failed to get a Golden Globe nomination, then surged to life after earning a PGA nom -- only to miss the Academy final cut. Now insiders are asking how much "The Reader" was helped by its weighty Holocaust theme and how much by Harvey.

Surprises: If the absence of "The Dark Knight" was a big shocker, so was the exclusion of not one but two Clint Eastwood movies -- Universal's "Changeling" and Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino." "Torino" had been gathering steam late in the race, but many insiders believe its terrific opening weekend came too late in the game, adding heft to the picture only after balloting had closed. Miramax's "Doubt" and Paramount Vantage's "Revolutionary Road" were also-rans.



Director

Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire")
Stephen Daldry ("The Reader")
David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")
Ron Howard ("Frost/Nixon")
Gus Van Sant ("Milk")

It makes sense that the Academy should choose the very directors who helmed the five best picture nominees, but all too often the two categories don't line up. That's because only members of the directors branch vote for the director nominees, whereas the Academy's entire 5,800 membership chooses the picture contenders. This year, the directors and the Academy were in sync, a disappointment for Eastwood, who failed to get nominated for either "Changeling" or "Gran Torino," and also for John Patrick Shanley, who had hoped to add a directing nomination to his writing kudos for "Doubt."

Surprises: With "Dark Knight" banished as best picture, it was inevitable that director Christopher Nolan would be overlooked too -- and so were luminaries like Sam Mendes ("Revolutionary Road") and Woody Allen ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona"). By contrast, Daldry was a surprise nominee after being bypassed by the Golden Globes and the DGA.



Actor

Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor")
Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon")
Sean Penn ("Milk")
Brad Pitt ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")
Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler")

Observers looking to read the tea leaves at other major awards like SAG or the Globes frequently forget that the Academy's membership skews significantly older. That's one reason the 1,200-plus members of the Academy's acting branch did not include Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire") in its best actor line-up, but instead opted for Richard Jenkins, playing a lonely widower in "The Visitor." This line-up also indicates that the Academy continues to favor heavier fare over comedy -- hence, none of the Globe comedy/musical actor nominees became an Oscar finalist.

Surprises: This looked like the category where Eastwood might at last clutch the acting bauble he has long coveted, or at least get a nomination. But it wasn't to be. Equally notable was the absence of Leonardo DiCaprio for his re-teaming with Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road." Javier Bardem, last year's best supporting actor winner ("No Country for Old Men"), played a role that straddled two categories -- lead and support -- in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." That may have cost him a nomination this time around.



Actress

Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married")
Angelina Jolie ("Changeling")
Melissa Leo ("Frozen River")
Meryl Streep ("Doubt")
Kate Winslet ("The Reader")

Winslet was badly hurt by the Academy's rule that no actor or actress may receive two nominations in the same category. Because of that, in all likelihood, she did not get nominated for "Revolutionary Road." It could have been quite different if the Academy had lumped her work in "The Reader" in the supporting actress category instead -- but, as so often, the Academy ignored studio wishes and this year's previous awards. (She won the Globe for best supporting actress.) Now Winslet just has one shot to win her first Oscar in six nominations. Her impressive body of work would certainly favor her going into the Oscars.

Surprises: Where, oh, where was Sally Hawkins? The British actress who starred in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" and won a Golden Globe in January was the most conspicuous omission among this year's nominees -- all the more surprising given that Leigh himself was nominated for original screenplay. Hawkins was one of two British actresses notably overlooked this year, along with Kristin Scott Thomas ("I've Loved You So Long"), who was also nominated for a Globe.



Supporting Actor

Josh Brolin ("Milk")
Robert Downey Jr. ("Tropic Thunder")
Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Doubt")
Heath Ledger ("The Dark Knight")
Michael Shannon ("Revolutionary Road")

Ledger has dominated this race for so long, winning a Globe and a SAG award, that most insiders believe he's a slam-dunk when it comes to the Oscars -- but this category has often held some real surprises when it comes to the actual winners. Among the nominees, the Academy gave a rare thumbs-up to comedy with Downey's nomination, but bypassed his co-star Tom Cruise, who earned a Globe nomination.

Surprises: Many fans of Brolin believe he has been slighted twice by the Academy: first, when it failed to nominate him for last year's "No Country for Old Men"; second, when it bypassed his lead actor work in Oliver Stone's "W." The absence of Patel is also notable -- one of the few strikes against a front-runner in the best picture category that won the top acting award at SAG. Patel may have been edged out by Michael Shannon, a newcomer to the awards race. But the real missing name is "Frost/Nixon's" Michael Sheen, who may have fallen between two stools, as voters were uncertain whether to choose him for lead or support.



Supporting Actress

Amy Adams ("Doubt")
Penelope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona")
Viola Davis ("Doubt")
Taraji P. Henson ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")
Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler")

This may be the most wide-open of all the acting categories and the toughest to predict. Cruz appeared to be the front-runner until she lost out at both the Globes and SAG to Winslet for "The Reader"; but with Winslet nominated in the best actress category instead, the race again is wide open. Cruz may continue a long streak of wins for Woody Allen's stars; Davis and Henson will both gain support as newcomers; Tomei will have fans for a career-resurrection; and Adams is one of the most liked young actresses in Hollywood.

Surprises: The Academy's decision to bump Winslet into the best actress category blew this race wide open. But otherwise, there were no major surprises here, and the nominees were in sync with both SAG and the Globes.



Original Screenplay

Dustin Lance Black ("Milk")
Courtney Hunt ("Frozen River")
Mike Leigh ("Happy-Go-Lucky")
Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges")
Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter ("WALL-E")

Four indie/specialty releases contend with one major studio player in this year's original screenplay category. But unlike recent years, where the race has boiled down to one or two particularly strong contenders (2006's "Little Miss Sunshine" vs. "The Queen," or 2007's "Juno" vs. "Michael Clayton"), different factions of the Academy will likely be split among all of this year's writing nominees. The absence of acting nominations would seem to bode ill for "Happy-Go-Lucky" and "In Bruges"; on the other hand, the Academy has never given an original screenplay Oscar to an animated film.

Surprises: The biggest surprise this year was how out-of-step the Academy was with the WGA, which only nominated one of the five Oscar nominees, "Milk," for original screenplay. (Its other nominees were "Burn After Reading," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "The Visitor" and "The Wrestler.") Leigh's inclusion is surprising in that he was the only nominee for "Happy-Go-Lucky," when the film had drawn most kudos for lead actress Hawkins.



Adapted Screenplay

Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire")
David Hare ("The Reader")
Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon")
Eric Roth, Robin Swicord ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")
John Patrick Shanley ("Doubt")

Continuing a trend throughout this Oscar season, the Academy's writing branch was remarkably in sync with the members as a whole. Every best picture nominee was also nominated for writing, and among the adapted screenplay nominees, only "Doubt" did not figure in the top category.

Surprises: In contrast with the original screenplay category, the Academy was closely in sync with the WGA when it came to the adapted screenplays -- except for one film: As in so many of the other non-technical categories, "The Dark Knight" was a notable omission. Just as in the best picture and director categories, "The Reader" edged it out, a big disappointment to brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.
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